Happy birthday, Piri Thomas!
Piri Thomas (September 30, 1928 – October 17, 2011) was a writer and poet whose memoir Down These Mean Streets became a best-seller.
Thomas (birth name: Juan Pedro Tomas) was born to a Puerto Rican mother and Cuban father. His childhood neighborhood in the Spanish Harlem section of New York City was riddled with crime and violence. According to Thomas, children were expected to be gang members at a young age, and Thomas was no exception. Thomas was also exposed to racial discrimination because of the color of his skin and because he was Hispanic. He was always referred to as Black despite his Puerto Rican heritage because of his skin color (Down These Mean Streets).
Thomas was involved with drugs, gang warfare and crime. While spending six years in prison, Thomas reflected on the teachings of his mother and father, and realized that a person is not born a criminal. Consequently he decided to use his street and prison know-how to reach at-risk youth, and to help them avoid a life of crime.
In 1967, Thomas received funds from the Rabinowitz Foundation to write and publish his best-selling autobiography Down These Mean Streets. The book describes his struggle for survival as a Puerto Rican/Cuban born and raised in the barrios of New York. It has been in print for 45 years. His other works include Savior, Savior Hold My Hand; Seven Long Times; and Stories from El Barrio.
Thomas was influential in the Nuyorican Movement which included poets Pedro Pietri, Miguel Algarin, and Giannina Braschi, who wrote of life in New York City using a mix of English and Spanish. Thomas worked on a book titled A Matter of Dignity and on an educational film entitled Dialogue with Society.
Thomas traveled around the U.S., Central America and Europe, giving lectures and conducting workshops in colleges and universities. He was the subject of the film Every Child is Born a Poet: The Life and Work of Piri Thomas, by Jonathan Robinson, which featured a soundtrack by Kip Hanrahan.
On October 17, 2011, Thomas died from pneumonia at his home in El Cerrito, California. He is survived by his wife Suzie Dod Thomas, six children, and three stepchildren.